Let’s talk about how we can enhance equity in the gym, not just equality. Women aren’t a niche population, they are the whole population, and will, in fact, make up the majority of the people you train. Achieving equity doesn’t mean treating men and women the same, especially since our world is designed with a middle aged white man in mind. This month, we’re going to discuss some simple ways you can make your gym environment more equitable for men and women.
Equality is recognising that, as human beings, we all have the same value. This means, we all have the same rights, we should all receive the same level of respect, and have the same access to opportunities. This isn’t just a nice idea – there are actual laws supporting this1.
Equity is about everyone achieving equal outcomes, and this is what we are interested in achieving in our gym or studio environment. We all have the same value and deserve a good life, but we all start from a different place, we all have different challenges and barriers, and we all have different abilities. We all also experience the world through differing perspectives. It’s because of these differences that we sometimes need to be treated differently for us all to live safely, healthily, happily…and equally! We need to look at what individual people and communities need in order to achieve equity. So while we’re talking about bringing equity in to the gym for women, these ideas and practises can be applied to any population, including people with disability, or who speak a language other than English.
As an example, equality would be giving everyone the same type of ladder to pick apricots at the top of a tree. Equity would be realising that not everyone can use the same type of ladder and providing another way for them to reach the mangoes at the top of the tree2.
So, with that in mind, we’ll dive in next week with the first of 6 changes you can make to your personal training practise to allow women the same advantages in the gym as men.
Changes 1, 2, and 3…
STOP Mansplaining, Interrupting, and Over-Talking: Equalise Airtime
First, let me make it clear that I am not speaking in broad generalisations that I’ve personally observed or assumed. I am making these recommendations based on actual research from our most respected universities.
Women generally achieve more and perform better when they understand WHY3, if they get the purpose of the activity, they’ll try harder. The dictatorial approach that many male coaches apply doesn’t work as well with female clients. Whilst we need to explain the purpose of our training decisions, we also need to avoid “mansplaining”; or explaining the obvious4.
From today, we have to start with the premise that this woman is smart, likely smarter than you5. Women out perform men in high school exams, in university results, and many other tested academic pursuits. What women (generally) don’t have in abundance is confidence6; but don’t confuse a lack of confidence with a lack of competence. Our job as personal trainers is to enhance their confidence, boost their self worth, show them what they’re capable of, and lift them up; not to reinforce old ideas that women are weak, incapable, and generally in need of hand-holding.
Men also interrupt women at three times the rate that women interrupt men7. These are tiny microaggressions that men and women alike fail to notice 90% of the time, but contribute to the feelings of low confidence and worth in our female clients, and awareness will help us learn to listen respectfully and honour what the person is saying – male or female.
If you’re a male personal trainer, this means asking more open-ended questions, then waiting until the client or female colleague stops speaking before you reply. Like everything, there’s a spectrum – perhaps you’re not once of those men who speaks twice as many words as women8, perhaps you, personally, are indeed equal, or only speak 30% more – it doesn’t actually matter. What matters is that in this moment, with this client or female colleague, they feel heard, valued, and that you’re actively making an effort to listen.
This will do wonders for their sense of worth and well being, and is a very simple and easy change to make in your behaviour – especially since our businesses are supposed to be about our clients!
So our first three changes to achieve equity in our gyms is all about equalising the verbal participation, stop explaining the obvious, interrupting her, and talking over her and see if you can create an environment where she can speak with freedom and have her thoughts aired, heard, and respected. If you do this successfully, it’ll be a rare and precious place for your female clients and colleagues.
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His and Hers Weights machines….
Or, just get rid of the ones where a person is locked in like the bicep curl or leg extension machines9. Here’s why: they’re designed for the average man, with average man variations. So to illustrate the point, let’s talk quickly about the fact that the first female crash test dummy was put to use in Sweden last month. You read right. Last month. 60 years after seatbelts were invented, and despite knowing that women are 78% more likely to be injured in a car accident, and more severely injured too, we’ve finally come around to the fact women have different bodies and seatbelts need modification to keep us safe. You can read more on this here.
This is true for mainstream gym equipment, too. Now we know that women are more likely to be injured when working out10, but most papers put that down to our hormonal profiles, as the effects of Oestrogen generally make us more mobile and less stable. However, what if it’s a combination of factors, which I think more likely, and I’m supported in this thought by Harvard University11:
- Yes, hormones would play a role, and the fact that they fluctuate and change over time.
- The fact that “proper form” is modelled on men’s bodies; women have smaller bones, larger hips, a different stress response, and plenty of other differences that require a different approach to “form” in movement12.
- The fact that our gym equipment is modelled on the average man13, unless you’re in a women’s only gym, where they usually have equipment designed for women, but then there is often not enough weight to put on that equipment14!!
- We’re not trained in women’s physiology, so there’s massive gaps in our knowledge, and the knowledge of women generally, on what’s good and what’s harmful for their bodies15.
- In sport, there’s less support for female athletes; less pay, less training, less facilities, less coaching, less gym sessions, less physio consults, etc.
If “his and hers” strength machines aren’t an option, modes of training that work for everyone include cable machines, dumbells, barbell and body weight exercise, with the trainer undergoing a decent education on “proper form” for a female body. The idea is to let the female body move like a female body, not lock it in to an average man’s pattern.
So, if you want a more equitable training environment in your gym, awareness of the equipment you’re providing is a good start.
Address Barriers to Exercise for Women.
Women need to exercise, as a lack of it is a major risk factor for developing chronic disease, and women are already more likely to develop chronic disease. Yet, worldwide, women are less active than men16.
Pelvic Floor Dysfunction is the number one barrier to exercise for women in Australia17, yet stress incontinence can be cured using movement in 80% of cases18. Regular exercise will also slow the onset of dementia19 20, and reduce the risk of developing heart disease21 – these are the numbers one and two causes of death in women in Australia right now.
Other barriers for women include:
- Not feeling like they belong in the weights room
- Not understanding why exercise and what types of exercise are important to them
- Feelings of judgement; regarding their size, appearance, and ability
- Competing demands on their time.
Women’s only gym’s and women’s only area’s are one answer to women feeling like they belong in the weights room. While there’s some criticism that they’re sexist, they’re also safe for women from predatory behaviour, like comments on their physique and non consensual filming22.
If you’re a trainer who would like to create a more equitable gym environment, then educating your female clients on what exercise is appropriate for them, how to use what equipment and when, then condensing it in to a session that will fit around family life is a fabulous start, and I reckon most of us are already doing that (albeit with poor education on female physiology). However, when it comes to feelings of belonging and safety for women, we’ve got a way to go.
Women’s only areas are one idea, but the onus is on the woman to keep herself safe in that scenario. In my view, creating a culture of inclusion, respect, and calling out poor (sometimes illegal) behaviour will go a lot further to create an equitable environment.
Oh, and if you do nothing else, get educated on the pelvic floor, will you? You’ll knock over the biggest barrier for most sedentary women, then you can move on to the other barriers one at a time!
*note on above video: new address to sign up for our Restore Your Core courses is https://clarehozack.au/product-category/restore-your-core/
Get educated; assume your current education is based on men and equalise your skills set
So this is probably obvious, although from some of the feedback i’ve received this month, perhaps it isn’t! You need to assume that everything you’ve learned in mainstream education is based on a man of average height, size, and age.
So even if you’re not “specialising” in women, there’s a massive gap in what you “know” about training men, and what you know about training women (not to mention the elderly, children and adolescents, people living with different disabilities, people who identify as queer, etc).
At IntoYou, a small training studio on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, we didn’t train women exclusively, but we did place equal emphasis on our education for women’s bodies as we did in our education for men’s bodies. This meant that when one of us studied strength and conditioning, we assumed that was for men, then we went out and trained ourselves in strength and conditioning for women. When another trainer qualified as a nutritionist, she also studied women’s nutrition across the lifespan. When we couldn’t find a course, we wrote our own, in the case of our 6-Step Restore Your Core and Pelvic Floor program, and Women’s Health program.
It is simply not enough, anymore, to assume women are just smaller versions of men. Things that work differently on our bodies include:
- Intermittent fasting
- Calorie restriction
- HIIT training
- Strength training on machines; we have different shaped bones, joints, and torso’s
- Plyometric training; we have different risks for injury
- Periodisation; we have different hormonal profiles which act on all parts of our bodies including our brains, muscles, and reproductive systems at different times
- Psychology; different things motivate us
Again, I want to emphasise that “different” is not the same as “less”. Different and modifying doesn’t mean women are weaker or less able – and this myth is another reason to get educated, so that you can play to your female client’s strengths.
Hopefully, these 6-Tips are helpful for you and your gym environment, and that we haven’t overwhelmed you! Remember, better is better, and progress is progress, one step at a time is wonderful for creating change :-)
1Australian Human Rights Commision (2020) Let’s Talk About Equality and Equity, humanrights.gov.au, retrieved 19th September 2023 from https://humanrights.gov.au/lets-talk-about-equality-and-equity
2Australian Human Rights Commision (2020) Let’s Talk About Equality and Equity, humanrights.gov.au, retrieved 19th September 2023 from https://humanrights.gov.au/lets-talk-about-equality-and-equity
3Roberts, C. M., Ferguson, L., & Mosewich, A. (2018). The psychology of female sport performance. In The Exercising Female (pp. 175-186). Routledge.
4Mansplaining and why it’s an issue: Smith, C., Schweitzer, L., Lauch, K., & Bird, A. (2022). ‘Well, actually’: Investigating mansplaining in the modern workplace. Journal of Management & Organization, 1-19. doi:10.1017/jmo.2022.81
5Females outperform males academically: Wrigley-Asante C, Ackah CG, Frimpong LK. Gender differences in academic performance of students studying Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at the University of Ghana. SN Soc Sci. 2023;3(1):12. doi: 10.1007/s43545-023-00608-8. Epub 2023 Jan 9. PMID: 36686568; PMCID: PMC9838398.
6Hancock, Adrienne & Rubin, Benjamin. (2014). Influence of Communication Partner’s Gender on Language. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. 34. 46-64. 10.1177/0261927X14533197.
7Men intrrupting women: Jacobi, Tonja and Schweers, Dylan, Justice, Interrupted: The Effect of Gender, Ideology and Seniority at Supreme Court Oral Arguments (October 24, 2017). 103 Virginia Law Review 1379 (2017), Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 17-03, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2933016
8Men speak twice as much as women: James, Deborah and Janice Drakich. “Understanding Gender Differences in Amount of Talk: Critical Review of Research,” In Gender and Conversational Interaction, ed. Deborah Tannen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
10Kassel, Gabrielle CF-L1 (2023) Women are More Likely to Get Injured Working Out whatsgood.vitaminshoppe.com, retrieved 17th October 2023 from https://whatsgood.vitaminshoppe.com/women-and-exercise-injuries/
11Shmerling, Robert H, MD (2020) The Gender Gap in Sports Injuries health.harvard.edu, retrieved 17th October 2023 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-gender-gap-in-sports-injuries-201512038708
12Edith Cowan University (2022) Why do Female Athletes Seem to get More Injuries Than Men? Ecu.edu.au, retrieved 17th October 2023 from https://www.ecu.edu.au/newsroom/articles/opinion/why-do-female-athletes-seem-to-get-more-injuries-than-men
13Halton, Mary (2020) Sports are Designed Around Men – and That Needs to Change ideas.ted.com, retrieved 17th October 2023 from https://ideas.ted.com/sports-are-designed-around-men-and-that-needs-to-change/
14Dungey, Caity (2023) Should I Join a Women-Only Gym? Everything You Need to Know prettybravefitness.com.au, retrieved 17th October 2023 from https://prettybravefitness.com.au/should-i-join-a-women-only-gym/
15Edith Cowan University (2022) Why do Female Athletes Seem to get More Injuries Than Men? Ecu.edu.au, retrieved 17th October 2023 from https://www.ecu.edu.au/newsroom/articles/opinion/why-do-female-athletes-seem-to-get-more-injuries-than-men
16The Lancet Public Health (2019) Time to Tackle the Physical Activity Gender Gap thelancet.com, retrieved 26th July 2023 from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(19)30135-5/fulltext#articleInformation
17Dakic JG, Cook J, Hay-Smith J, Lin KY, Ekegren C, Frawley HC. Pelvic Floor Symptoms Are an Overlooked Barrier to Exercise Participation: A Cross-Sectional Online Survey of 4556 Women Who Are Symptomatic. Phys Ther. 2022 Mar 1;102(3):pzab284. doi: 10.1093/ptj/pzab284. PMID: 34939122.
18Pelvic floor dysfunction: prevention and non-surgical management. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE); 2021 Dec 9. (NICE Guideline, No. 210.) Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK579556/
19Alty J, Farrow M, Lawler K. Exercise and dementia prevention. Pract Neurol. 2020 May;20(3):234-240. doi: 10.1136/practneurol-2019-002335. Epub 2020 Jan 21. PMID: 31964800.
20Gholamnezhad Z, Boskabady MH, Jahangiri Z. Exercise and Dementia. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2020;1228:303-315. doi: 10.1007/978-981-15-1792-1_20. PMID: 32342466.
21Tian D, Meng J. Exercise for Prevention and Relief of Cardiovascular Disease: Prognoses, Mechanisms, and Approaches. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2019 Apr 9;2019:3756750. doi: 10.1155/2019/3756750. PMID: 31093312; PMCID: PMC6481017.
22Dungey, Caity (2023) Should I Join a Women-Only Gym? Everything You Need to Know prettybravefitness.com.au, retrieved 17th October 2023 from https://prettybravefitness.com.au/should-i-join-a-women-only-gym/